The Veterinary Exam

By F. Morgan Dawkins, DVM


Dawkins, F.M. (2003). The Veterinary Exam. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, October 2003. (


Unfortunately, veterinary care is often overlooked by reptile owners. This may be related to not knowing that veterinary care is available or having heard about bad experiences associated with care by veterinarians without reptile experience. The truth is that veterinary diagnostics, treatments, and basic husbandry information has grown tremendously within just the last few years. Most veterinarians do not routinely see reptile patients, so the care you receive is influenced by the experience of your veterinarian. Before obtaining a chameleon, you should research the husbandry needs of that reptile as well as be looking for a reptile experienced veterinarian. A good starting place to look is the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians website at Many reptile websites will also have links to lists of member recommended veterinarians. Once you have located your veterinarian, you should schedule an exam so that you can develop a client-veterinary relationship before any problems arise.

There are several things you should expect from your veterinary visit. The actual exam will most likely be a very small part of the initial visit. At most veterinary offices, exotic animal visits are given a longer time allotment, hence the often higher exam fee compared to cat/dog visits. A large amount of time is spent on discussing basic husbandry. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation about chameleon care. I find that even when owners have done a good job of researching care there are still things that could be done better. As our knowledge increases, care recommendations change. The recommendations I made just a few years ago are different than those I make now for many exotic species, including chameleons. Husbandry problems are the most common cause of illness in exotic pets so following the guidelines provided by your vet will be the most important thing you can do to keep your chameleon healthy. You should expect your veterinarian to have experience with common species, such as veiled or panther chameleons, but don't necessarily expect them to have a large amount of experience with more uncommon species. An experienced veterinarian will know where to find supplemental information on these species if needed. You should expect your veterinarian to be comfortable with handling your chameleon without causing excessive stress. You should also make sure your veterinarian can provide the advanced care currently available, such as x-rays, bloodwork, surgery and intensive care hospitalization, as needed. I strongly believe that a veterinary relationship is important no matter what your situation, but the type of relationship will vary according to your needs. In homes with a single chameleon or small number of animals with which the owner is bonded, yearly exams with preventative diagnostics such as fecal analysis, bloodwork, etc. will help to provide longevity for these individual animals by diagnosing and treating problems early. This is much different than what I would expect to provide for a breeding operation with many animals and a very experienced keeper. I would recommend at least yearly home visits to discuss setup and monitor any problems, but exams and diagnostics of each individual animal would most likely be cost prohibitive and not necessarily in the best interest of the operation. You should work with your veterinarian to tailor the relationship to your situation.

The next, and most important thing after finding a vet, is what the vet expects from you. The information you provide is by far the most important part of trying to diagnose a problem and can help determine why it happened so that it can hopefully be prevented in the future. The more information you are able to provide; the more valuable the veterinary visit to you and your chameleon. You will hopefully have had an initial visit so that you know the proper care you should be providing. Now you should be keeping accurate, in-depth records that can help you discover problems early and help the veterinarian uncover the cause. You should be keeping track of temperatures within the environment both daytime and nighttime as well as the range of temperatures within the environment. Make sure you are using an accurate, good quality thermometer, not one of the cheap dials that tend to be very inaccurate. You should be able to describe the cage setup (pictures are nice to have) and the watering system. You should keep records of the type and number of insects fed as well as the type of supplements and schedule for their use. Remember that feeding and supplementation include the feeding and care of the insects that are being fed to your chameleon. You may even want to bring the supplement packages to the visit for the veterinarian to evaluate. Monitoring amount and/or changes in fecal production and consistency can also be useful. For female chameleons, keep careful records of breeding and egg laying dates and number of eggs laid. Also note any reproductive problems if they occur. Make sure that you can describe in-depth the lighting and heating sources, including brand and last time changed. I recommend that all exotic pet owners purchase a gram scale. Since chameleons, and most exotic pets, tend to hide illness quite well, monitoring weight changes can be the first thing noticed when a problem is beginning. A weekly weight chart is a very valuable tool. Not only will it help identify potential problems early, but it will help you and your vet analyze your feeding regimen and monitor your chameleon's growth

A veterinary relationship is very important, but remember that you are the first line of defense in the health care of your animal. Many problems seen in chameleons, and all exotics, are preventable and unfortunately often chronic before they are presented to the veterinarian. This makes resolving the problems difficult and all too often impossible. By proper home monitoring you are better able to provide the care your animal needs and deserves, and if problems occur you are more likely to notice them while they can still be resolved. You must work with your veterinarian to provide the best care for your pet.

F. Morgan Dawkins, DVM

F. Morgan Dawkins DVM lives in SouthEast Pennsylvania with his wife, Jennifer(also a veterinarian), 4 children, panther chameleons, a leopard tortoise, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and a pen full of chickens. He is a 1996 graduate of the University of Tennessee CVM. He worked several years doing large and small animal practice, but for the last 5 years has done only small animal and exotic pets. He is currently a partner at Windcrest Animal Hospital in Wilmington, Deleware. He may be reached at the following address and phone number:

Windcrest Animal Hospital

3705 Lancaster Pike

Wilmington, DE 19805 USA

Ph: (302) 998-2995

Fax: (302) 998-5785


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